With non-conference play over, the No. 4 Michigan football team’s road is about to get tougher. Coming off a 45-28 win over Colorado last week, the Wolverines will open Big Ten play when they host Penn State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
The teams find themselves in very different places, with Michigan in the national title picture and the Nittany Lions out to re-establish their position as a contender in the Big Ten East.
Here’s what to watch for when Penn State and Michigan kick off:
1. The injury report:
Saturday could mark the return of some of the Wolverines’ top defensive playmakers. While the status of redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone remains unclear, Harbaugh has publicly conveyed his belief that senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis and senior defensive end Taco Charlton could return to the lineup.
Lewis has not yet played this season, missing the first three games with a nagging injury that has affected his back, quadricep and hamstring. Coaches and teammates have said Lewis has been his usual swaggering self in practice and on the sidelines, and if he can carry that over to the playing field, he could boost a secondary that, while highly graded early on, has given up a handful of big plays.
Charlton went down in Michigan’s opener with an ankle injury, but his potential coming into the season has many excited for what might happen upon his return. Playing on the edge of a line that includes fifth-year seniors Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, Charlton would bring even more veteran presence to one of the Big Ten’s best units.
2. Will Penn State punt to Peppers?
Could you blame them if they didn’t? Peppers scored his first career punt return touchdown last week against Colorado, and he currently leads the nation in total punt return yards with 173.
After a 2015 season that saw him come within one or two missed tackles of the end zone multiple times, Peppers has now broken through. What happens next will be interesting to watch.
Michigan special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Partridge said Wednesday that if teams do stop kicking to Peppers, the Wolverines’ field position would be “incredible.”
How teams choose to weigh the balance between the field position battle and avoiding the potential for a massive play is hard to predict, and it becomes even more complicated when you factor in Michigan’s success in punt blocking.
Through three games, the Wolverines have affected at least four punts. So when teams are deciding how to approach Peppers, their focus also has to be on simply getting the punt off.
3. Will Speight bounce back?
After he took a huge hit in the first quarter against Colorado, Speight was noticeably less potent than in his first two games. The Wolverines still salvaged a strong day on offense, but Michigan will want its starter back in form for Big Ten play.
There was no word on whether Speight is still feeling the effects of that sack, but he did say after the game he had never been hit like that.
Part of the issue could have been the Buffaloes’ defensive backs, who were roundly praised by the Wolverines this week. Fifth-year senior receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh were held largely in check — though each scored a touchdown — and will be looking for a bounce-back showing as well.
But they’ll need Speight to get them the ball, and if his performance lags, Michigan’s offense could be in a little trouble.
4. The big play:
It’s possible that it’s entirely too early to pinpoint this as a serious weakness, but for two straight games, Michigan has been burned on a handful of big plays.
Against Central Florida, it was on the ground. Against Colorado, it was through the air. Against Penn State, Michigan would benefit from shoring those issues up. Lewis and Charlton returning would likely help, but even the best teams in the country can find themselves in trouble if they can’t contain the big plays.
Penn State’s spread offense should give the Wolverines a familiar up-tempo look from their past two contests. If they can adjust off of their miscues from those games, Michigan can finally let its defense shine.